Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


MONDAY 13 MAY 2002

  100. I did not say that.
  (Mr Barrett) I am sorry. I have misunderstood your question.

  101. I did not say that. I asked whether you had always awarded to the lowest bidder. It may have been in your view also the best value for money. The question is: have you ever awarded one except to the lowest bidder?
  (Mr Barrett) Yes, I have.

  102. How many? What sort of percentage?
  (Mr Barrett) Over my entire career as a procurement professional —

  103. I was thinking in terms of major Government contracts.
  (Mr Barrett) I have never awarded a major Government IT contract. I have only been a civil servant for 13 months.

  104. How many major Government IT contracts over the last two years have been awarded to anyone except the lowest bidder?
  (Mr Barrett) I do not know the answer to that.[6]

  Mr Rendel: If you cannot tell us off the top of your head, it would be interesting to have that in a note, if we may. Thank you.

Geraint Davies

  105. May I ask you about take-up and different types of people? I think I am right in saying that the areas of lowest take-up, those who are economically less advantaged and those who are older, are those who perhaps consume more Government services. That is true, is it not?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

  106. Second, I think I am right in saying that we have very limited information about the needs and preferences of those particular groups which happen to be the heavy consumers of Government services. Is that true?
  (Mavis McDonald) I cannot agree with that last statement because people know different amounts about different groups. Quite a lot is known about the way the factors of deprivation can come together, particularly can come together in certain places.

  107. Do you think take-up amongst those groups would be much better if we knew much more about their needs and preferences and spent more time putting together sites which are more easily accessible to them and also relevant to them?
  (Mavis McDonald) On the more general point, there has been over quite a long period in various regeneration programmes, starting probably with the single regeneration project but certainly the New Deal for Communities programmes and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, a component of those programmes which has been about developing capacity and skills in localities, which has very frequently involved introducing people to the scope of IT and using it both for training purposes as well as helping run the particular programmes on the ground. A lot of work involved the Employment Service in working as part of the partnerships around those programmes and that is still going on. This is something where our information and knowledge has been building up and where most people's perception of take-up is that actually there is a huge interest whatever the kind of grouping you are talking about. Something like Castle Vale HAT, for example, had a very significant programme which spanned a lot of age groups.

  108. What are we doing to help older people take up these facilities? First, they are not particularly interested in them, many of them obviously do not have computers at home and third, when they do try it is very difficult because the sites have not been constructed in a very user-friendly way.
  (Mr Pinder) It is not just people who are old. Lots of people sometimes have difficulties with all sorts of sites, including Government sites. We produced something called the Government Web Guidelines which are targeted at Departments, encouraging them to build sites which are accessible. By "accessible" we mean they are accessible in technical terms, they load relatively quickly onto people's computers and there is no worldwide wait that someone referred to earlier. They are accessible using a speech browser which is essential for people who have poor eyesight or are blind. They are not written in the classic Civil Service way of assuming a very high reading age and so on.

  109. Like a speech browser, when they come along, allows you to talk to the computer, that sort of thing.
  (Mr Pinder) Yes. The RNIB will have services which provide blind people with a speech browser which sits in the computer and as a website comes up it will read the site out aloud to people. Designing a site which is going to be used by one of those things, you have to design it so it is not a conventional site. It has to have particular features in it which make the most of the website.

  110. Would it be possible, for instance, for someone to come into a waiting room for a service, whether the Health Service or a passport service, and you stick them in front of a screen and switch it on and then you leave the room and they just talk to it and they have never used the internet before. Is that possible?
  (Mr Pinder) Not that way round. The UK online sites and the major Government Department sites are accessible using a speech browser so that the site itself will read to you.

  111. You cannot interact.
  (Mr Pinder) No, you need additional software in order to be able to do that. We design sites and we have these guidelines to push Departments to design sites in an accessible way. We are also very conscious that many people do not have access to the internet at home and if they are out of work or their work does not allow them internet access, they have no way of getting in. We are in the process of opening up a large number of UK online centres, including libraries, where people can get access to the internet on-line. We also need to make sure that people are catered for not just in accessibility and physically and the site looking good, but we also need to design the service in a way that they want it. We have been working very hard with Departments to get them to think about how to take into account the needs of their users. So Departments are increasingly going out there and taking groups of users and asking them and trying out different designs and different services with them to understand what they need.

  112. Obviously a lot of these people do not have electronic facilities in the first place. May I move you back to the quotation in the Sunday Times about taking 20 per cent out of the cost of staffing over ten years? You did not say that apparently.
  (Mr Pinder) No.

  113. What sort of savings have we seen in staffing in Canada, the United States, Singapore, who are ahead of us in this area over the last year or two in converting services on-line?
  (Mr Pinder) I do not know the answer to that question.

  114. You should know, should you not?
  (Mr Pinder) The reason I do not know is because I think they are actually not ahead of us; they are at a similar stage to us. They are themselves trying to understand the effects of this new technology and are working through a series of new projects.

  115. Do you think it is reasonable for the taxpayer to expect you to manage your budget in such a way that you want to try to recover the investment in IT from reductions in labour costs which people naturally assume will happen?
  (Mr Pinder) It is very reasonable for the taxpayer to assume that Departments, including the Department I am part of, recover their costs by getting value for money and improvement to services. Sometimes that value for money will be delivered in a reduction of staff or reduction of other resources. On other occasions it will be delivered by improved services, whether it is improved accessibility or a better range of services.

  116. This article, to which you deny contributing, suggests that of the four million total, two million are in areas where you could cut 40 per cent out because they are not in the job of direct delivery of services. What the Government want, or the public want, is for more money maybe to be spent, but that money to be focused on direct delivery and not unnecessary backroom jobs. We are all in favour of redistributing resources to increase outputs. What I am interested in knowing is whether you have any sort of idea of how much the backroom admin can be reduced whilst keeping up efficiency levels so you can re-allocate that resource?
  (Mr Pinder) It is really very hard for me to comment on an article to which I did not contribute.

  117. Forget the article. I am just asking what you think. You are in charge of all this. I would have thought that as a businessman you would have some idea where we are going to make some savings in public expenditure to redistribute.
  (Mr Pinder) There are clearly opportunities for Departments to improve the way in which —

  118. Do you have any quantification in any Department of how much savings we may be able to make over the next few years in order to redistribute towards front-line services or not at all?
  (Mr Pinder) That is very much a matter for individual Departments to come forward with individual business cases. Often those business cases will have a range of things in them, for example, they will put a service on-line, but they will also be doing other things to their back office to make the off-line service more attractive as well and more efficient as well.

  119. That is the idea. The idea would be to save some money in the admin and spend it somewhere. I am not trying to cut jobs. I am trying to create more jobs in nursing and teaching instead of people pushing pens when they might be nurses.
  (Mr Pinder) Of course. The idea in all this is to try to improve accuracy, which having a service on-line does.

6   Note by witness: This information is not held centrally by the OGC. However, I have analysed the 13 NAO Reports on IT projects produced in the past two years to see if this information could be discerned. I have found two contracts which were reported to have been awarded to the lowest bidder and three where a combination of client and supplier factors led to the competition having only one bidder. I was unable to determine this information from the other eight reports. I regret that the information is not available for me to answer the question more fully. Back

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